I have an acquaintance who is in a wheel chair.  He was a former top ranked cyclist who had a severe accident that put him there.  Recently I ran into him and asked how it was going. His response was interesting and stuck with me.  Here is what he said:

“By and large, the world is not made for people like me. Occasionally I run into some experience that is pretty rotten.  Doesn’t have to be that way but it is.  Lots of people take short cuts when planning or designing something.”

It was that phrase that has rolled around in my head for a couple of months now.  I mention it now because this is in large part what we are seeing the design and management of online communities.  Generally there is one way to engage, one way to find people, one way to create content and if lucky, one way to collaborate.  Why?  That’s how it was designed.

So why is this?  In large part, I place the blame on the industry pundits.  If you have ever been to a social media conference, you know what I am talking about.  Keynote speakers focus on ‘Glittering Generalities’.  The sparkly stuff that is so enticing and provides immediate gratification.

‘Join the conversation.’

The problem is that not all users are created equal and  faceted engagement is still light years off for most community designers and Glittering Generalities, while exciting to hear are just that.  Generalities that are useless in the trenches of day to day operations.

So what is faceted engagement?  It’s a simple concept but not necessarily simple to execute.  Think about it as creating a variety of ways for users to get and remain involved within a community.  Ever been to a restaurant that only had baked chicken on the menu?  Of course not, good restaurants know their customer base and build a variety of dishes at the proper price points that will appeal to their target clientele.  If you understand this, then you understand faceted engagement.  Still, most online communities focus on building an experience in a very generic way and generic always leads to uninspiring.  To be successful, you have to really understand your user and think about what they want to get out of an experience, how they want to involve themselves.  The totality of their experience.

By the way, if you start off with community platform functionality, you have totally missed the boat.

Community architects need to start thinking more like successful product designers.  Build the product and the experience to fit your user, how they live or work, what do they want to get out of this commitment with you.  Focus on the details.  Create real use scenarios.  Generate engagement calendars.  Putting a UX on an out of the box application will not get you very far in terms of developing a sustainable relationship with your customer.

For instance, Forrester’s Augie Ray recently posted a blog posing the question as to why social behaviors are beginning to plateau.  Seems that today, we have more joiners (the equivalent of browsers in a store) but fewer creators ?  Why is this?  Well, we know that creators are a unique and special breed of individual.  Fact is there are fewer of them than other users who actively engage online such as Collectors.  For every legion of Joiners, there are only a handful of Creators.  That’s a fact.  To attract and keep Creators engaged, you have to make the experience interesting and worthwhile to them.

Faceted engagement is important because you don’t really know how the engaged user (in this case the Creator) will want to engage on that day but you should have a pretty good idea of what their range of interest is.  What’s interesting, exciting and enticing will fall into that range or a spectrum of engagement activities.  A good community architect’s job is to understand that spectrum and then build engagement tools and activities that support it.

Overall, community designers are getting better at this, but we are still in the infancy of dynamic online social design.  Brands want to sell product and to keep customers happy which is why most community venues today exist.  Knowing this, there needs to be as much attention given to developing a relevant and robust community experience as is given to the design and support of the products the brand sells.  Anything short of that and community will be the weak link in the brand chain.

Yes, I know, this is a lot of work and most of it isn’t glamorous or exciting.  However, who ever said that building successful communities was easy?  Don’t believe me?  Ask a product designer.

Steve Hershberger
Steve Hershberger